Ann Christys has provided a tremendous service to students of the Viking Age with this short book, which aims to integrate viking activity in the South with the much better known theatres of war and peaceful exchange in western Europe, Byzantium, and the East. Christys’s knowledge of early medieval Iberia and its Arabic writers, Latin charters and Romance chronicles is not shared by most students of the viking world, and her study is a very welcome addition to the field. While vikings made themselves ‘part of the history of Iberia’ (p. 95), details of what they did, and where, have been elusive. Christys lays out what is known: that Northmen raided the northern and western coasts of the Iberian peninsula, attacked Lisbon and Seville, and may have threatened the Umayyad capital at Cordoba; studies of mouse DNA (sic) suggest that their ships travelled as far as Madeira (p. 7). The most significant episodes seem to have taken place in 844–5, 859–62 and the 960s. Motives are uncertain: in contrast to other regions, there is no archaeology of trade (in the form of camps or trading sites, for example) and no physical or onomastic evidence of more than ephemeral settlement. Christys wonders whether slaves were in fact the greatest draw (pp. 11–12). Her verdict is that viking activity was ‘probably small-scale, although perhaps more frequent than our sources admit’ (p. 95). There were other predatory men in boats in the Mediterranean, and students of the period with a passing knowledge of the context know that there are terminology issues involved in tracking vikings in the South. Christys provides a valuable analysis of two awkward terms, lordomanni/lormani and majūs. Regarding the latter, she makes a complicated situation clear by suggesting that, in Iberia, vikings were regularly called majūs, but not all those that were called majūs were vikings (p. 20). Christys keeps a firm hand on the tiller while navigating the considerable difficulties presented by a series of often confusing and contradictory texts, most of them written long after the events they describe. She gathers together what they have to offer and carefully unpicks the links between them. This allows her to demonstrate the ways in which what really happened has been obscured by repeated retelling, as viking attacks took on the character of legend. On the one hand, Arabic writers tapped geographies for ideas about the North and constructed chains of histories of resistance, validated by transmission in analogy with the practice of hadith, the handing-down of the sayings of Mohammed (p. 35). In the Christian tradition, on the other hand, vikings were ‘a thread running through ecclesiastical memory’ (p. 86); the conflicts were seen as a prelude to later victories against another kind of pagan, a precursor to the subsequent ‘reconquest’ of the peninsula from its Muslim rulers. Spearheading these struggles were heroic figures whose expulsion of viking attackers became a topos: stories of glorious resistance to viking aggression were attached to different individuals—Muslim or Christian, secular or ecclesiastical—according to local (and changing) needs. In the process, in both traditions, narrative logic triumphed over whatever memories of real incidents survived, and fact gave way to fiction. Literary elaboration is discussed again in a final short chapter on the Scandinavian sources—histories, hagiographies and sagas, all composed after the Viking Age—which also claimed Iberia as a place of heroes (Eric Bloodaxe and Olaf Haraldsson, for example), but on the other side. In this short book, Christys brings a welcome certainty to the question of whether vikings targeted the South in the ninth and tenth centuries. But she also opens up a rich transcultural seam, showing how, in this diverse region, guardians of memory as different as the churchmen at Santiago de Compostela and writers at the Muslim court of Cordoba spun the viking topos to similar effect. Christys is to be thanked for unravelling the difficult source material that has discouraged scholars from integrating the Iberian peninsula into the wider picture and for a succinct introduction to this intriguing corner of the viking world. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 15, 2018
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